Committee hears ins and outs of hydrogen fuel research

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By Roger Snodgrass

A legislative committee wrapped up two days of hearings Friday with an in-depth presentation on hydrogen technology research at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Committee Chairman Rep. John Heaton, D-Eddy said one purpose of hearings was to delve into the subject of energy alternatives that were important to the nation.

“We’ve raised the bar,” he said, before the second session of the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee began at Fuller Lodge.

Catherine Padró who heads the laboratory’s fuel cell group and Anthony Burrell, a Technical Staff Member in the Materials Chemistry Group gave reports on LANL’s long history of fuel cell research and current efforts as part of the Department of Energy’s Chemical Hydrogen Storage Center of Excellence.

Earlier this month DOE announced funding up to $15.3 million over five years for 10 hydrogen storage research and development projects, part of a $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative for hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

Hydrogen fuel cells are one of the most promising areas of research for a clean, portable alternative to carbon-based energy for vehicles, but as the researchers made clear, there are still many challenges in the areas of storage, safety, driving range, cost and performance.

Fuel cells are promising because they use hydrogen, an abundant gas with high energy content. At the same time, hydrogen molecules are very small.

“It’s really hard to get enough of it in the space you want to get it in,” said Padró. “To get the equivalent of a tank of gas, you have to pressurize it at high temperatures to get close, or liquefy it (at extremely cold temperatures). It’s not very efficient.”

Further, hydrogen easily bonds with many other elements, making it difficult to keep pure.

Padró noted that national production of hydrogen gas is currently about 90 million tons a year, which could fuel about 15 percent of the current transportation fleet, if they were all fuel cell vehicles.

Fuel cells use a catalyst to separate hydrogen electrons from protons. The detour taken by the electrons creates a current that provides energy.

Of the most recent $15.3 million found of funding, LANL received the largest portion, up to $2.3 million, for a novel concept using an electric field to increase the hydrogen binding energy in hydrogen adsorbents.

Padró said, “We have a bias because we’re good at chemistry, and that’s the way nature stores hydrogen.”

But the disadvantage, she noted, is that in this chemical hydrogen system the hydrogen can’t easily be put back into the chemical package again.

Burrell described a mobile energy system carrying a storage tank with a hydrogen compound that is filled from a nozzle and from which hydrogen can be obtained.

But while providing hydrogen fuel for the cell, there’s something left over and the residual material has to be pumped off for recycling.

Padró said efforts at finding an alternative catalyst for the costly platinum that is currently used in fuel cells have succeeded in lowering the amount of the metal needed in a system by one-fourth, but meanwhile the price of plutonium has quadrupled.

“Hydrogen for transportation is a difficult problem,” she said, “but it has enormous potential.”

Burrell discussed some of the exacting standards the DOE program is trying to reach in two steps, one by 2010 and another by 2015.

“The hydrogen fuel must come out fast and clean,” Burrell said. “It must work as well in Wisconsin in the winter as it does in Phoenix in the summer.

Two other centers of excellence include one headed by Sandia National Laboratories looking into metal hydrides, something more like a battery in which the hydrogen would be recharged, but nothing would be removed.

The other, led by California Institute of Technology and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is working on developing hydrogen-rich materials that can be used as fuels.

The LANL center includes a host of universities, private companies and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Heaton, who represents Eddy County in the New Mexico House of Representatives said Thursday’s meeting included an update on LANL’s environmental cleanup program by James Bearzi, chief of the Hazardous Waste Bureau of the New Mexico Environment Department.

“From the Environment Department’s perspective, things are moving well with respect to the Consent Order,” Heaton reported, noting that an additional $17 million has made possible additional monitoring wells.

“There are some issues,” he added, and some concerns that federal funds will not be adequate to meet the 2015 deadline for the cleanup.

“It’s important for Congress to understand that,” he said.